In many places in Bolivia, I saw life-size dolls dangling from lamp posts, power poles, walls and even next to the church. I was unable to figure out what they were supposed to represent.
When I asked about it, I always received evasive replies referring to “custom” or limited to explanations that explain absolutely nothing, like “that’s what people do around here”. At first, I thought my Spanish was too bad to understand, but over time it became obvious that nobody wanted to talk about it. Until I met a girl in La Paz who explained quite openly, while we were walking around El Alto, that the dolls serve as a warning: “In this part of town, we’ll hang you if we catch you stealing.”
And these are no empty threats. Take this woman and her two children for example. They were accused of stealing a car and tied to a mahogany tree that houses nests of the red fire ant. The woman died from ant bites. The children were rescued by police.
As a lawyer, I am rather skeptical towards these practices, for how is the mob supposed to evaluate evidence and mitigating circumstances? How to guarantee a fair trial? How to determine adequate punishment? I can also imagine that lynching disadvantages the poor, the less educated or the mentally ill even more than the state justice system. As we say in Bolivia:
Justice is like a snake. Its bite is harder on those who have to walk barefoot.
And sometimes, lynching may simply be the fastest way to get rid of a member of the community who is annoying or disliked.
According to the ombudsmann, there were 41 cases of lynching in 2014, of which 13 resulted in a death. But I doubt that the ombudsman learns of everything going on in the country.